As we open a new year and lead up to the November 2014 State Election, the focus of this edition of Insight is on the most vulnerable of Victorians: its children.
It includes a warning from Victoria’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos that we are at risk of creating a new Stolen Generation. He says that Aboriginal children and young people are being placed in out of home care at rates higher than we
have seen since white settlement – removed from family, country, culture and community.
Too many non-Aboriginal children are also being removed from their families in Victoria. Yes, for some it is the best and only option, but too often it is because intervention and support comes too late.
How can this be the case when we already know what we need to do to nourish children and give them the best start in life?
The evidence is now compelling that the earlier we support children, the better lives they will have. If that wasn’t convincing enough, economist James Heckman won the 2000 Nobel Prize for showing that investing in early childhood saves money.
But, as child trauma experts Dr Bruce Perry and Annette Jackson point out in their article, the focus of governments is still far too heavily on crisis intervention.
Protecting vulnerable children is not just about providing more and better out of home care, although quality care and therapeutic approaches are paramount. It’s about a focus on children’s wellbeing from the beginning. According to Dr Lea Pulkkinen’s Ten Pillars of a Good Childhood in Finland, that means a transformation of the way we think about children and families, and has much to do with equity.
Dr Lance Emerson questions how a nation as competitive as Australia can face being behind on so many key indicators of child vulnerability: infant mortality, income inequality, jobless families. He notes its consequence: we may be seeing, for the first time in history, a decline in life expectancy of Australian children, particularly for Aboriginal children who even now can only expect to live to an average 54 years – less than non-Aboriginal children 100 years ago.
Many of the responses needed are federal, but much is also in the hands of the Victorian Government.
Governments have to connect the dots, to know that putting young mums into prison on remand because they have no safe place to stay will only lead to higher child protection rates; that not stepping in with strong diversion options when 10 year olds commit relatively minor crime is more likely to lead them to prison.
They need to build family violence support so mothers and children are not separated, exacerbating the assaultupon them; to recognise that children who are homeless risk poor physical, dental and mental health and disrupted education; to understand that punishing an adult for a crime should not also punish their child.
They need to accept that taking away financial support for uniforms or shoes or excursions for struggling families risks their participation in school. The pressures are described heartbreakingly by a child in one article:
“My mum struggles. She gets paid on Thursdays but struggles on the Wednesday. Me and my brother, if there is no food for school, we don’t go to school at all. She has never sent us to school with no food.”
Schools like Doveton College, featured in this edition, point to the way and commitment ahead – of what may be possible if universal and specialist services come together with enthusiasm and if governments and philanthropists provide enough support, help sweep away bureaucratic barriers, and don’t expect ‘one-sizefits-all’ solutions that must deliver in the short-term.
So too does the experience of the Sure Start program for children in the United Kingdom, which led the way with reforms that were driven “not from a spending department” but from Treasury.
The Victorian Government has made a start here with its Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Strategy, but too many of its other policies work against its success. This edition of Insight aims to put a bigger challenge on the agenda for the 2014 State Election: to give all Victorian children a better start, and better lives.
We are very pleased to publish this edition of Insight with the support of the Berry Street Childhood Institute. We also thank our contributors for sharing their insights and hope our readers find much to consider.